Every year, as the seder gets to the point of opening the door for Elijah, it reminds me of the yearly squabble that would ensue when we were kids about who got to open the door. It was always my older sister’s job and the rest of us were always jealous. We thought there was some sort of ghost thing happening out there with Elijah supposedly coming through the door — we all wanted to be part of the spookiness. That said, now that I’m grown, I am not entirely healed of the paranormal possibilities out there. Do we believe that Elijah is entering our homes? Where did this practice come from? Why do we open the door for Elijah?
Kudos to you for drawing our eyes toward the second half of the seder. So often our total focus is fixed on the first half and on the beginning passages and practices, leaving us with the oft-ignored second half experienced usually with a dulled sensibility, a sated belly, and an all-around exhausted constitution. It creates the perfect storm of ignorance and neglect. Time to remedy that! Herewith, some answers for the Elijah enigma.
If possible, go grab a Haggadah. Leaf through till right after the Birkat Hamazon, the Grace After Meals, and notice where the small print says, “Open the door for Elijah.” Warning: You will only find this in an Ashkenazic Haggadah. Sephardic tradition does not include the practice of opening the door for Elijah or the idea of the cup of Elijah, which goes with the door opening and the recital of the short paragraph “Shefoch Chamatecha” — the emphatic plea to God to pour out wrath upon those nations who have harmed the Jewish people.
These elements — Elijah, the fifth cup, the open door, the prayer for justice — are all threads of this otherworldly custom of opening the door for Elijah on seder night, though rituals vary from home to home.
Some fill only Elijah’s cup at this point, some fill everyone’s fourth cup. Some then offer everyone some of Elijah’s cup indicating the significance of “sharing in each other’s cup.” Some would never touch a drop from Elijah’s cup! Some sing “Elijah” songs, some do not. Some jiggle the table and construct stories for the children: “Did you see Elijah come in and sip the wine?” Some do none of the above, because they are not Ashkenazic!
A number of reasons are offered for the custom of opening the door. Some include Elijah and some do not, some are ascribed to recent history, others to the distant Torah times. It might symbolize that Passover night is considered an evening of special protection, “leil shimurim,” as it is called in Shemoth 12:42. On this unique night of being guarded, we open the door to demonstrate our confidence in the Almighty’s protection. Some say this opening of the door conjures up memories of Jacob, who according to the Midrash received the blessing of his father, Isaac, on Passover eve. Jacob hid behind the door as Esau entered, demanding his blessing. To commemorate this precarious moment, we open our doors on seder night.
Others suggest the custom is rooted in medieval history, beginning with the time of the Crusades. Blood libels leveled at the Jews occurred at Pesach time with bodies being placed on Jewish property and then accusations being leveled that Jews had used blood in the baking of matzot; doors are opened to guard and prevent against such activity. Fittingly, this time it would be appropriate to beseech God for protection from such threatening malevolent conspiracies.
The explanation offered that seems most congruent to the seder story is on the night of the Exodus, the Israelites were enjoined to remain sealed in their homes, “no person may go out from the door of their house till dawn” as the plague of the first born passed through the land.
Indeed, the doorposts the Israelites had marked with the blood of the Pesach sacrifice indicated the homes to be spared. Though we remained indoors that night for protection, at the time of the Great Redemption we will have no qualms. So it is at this stage of the seder we begin to turn our attention from the experience of redemption in Egypt and shift to the future redemption. As this night was the night of the first redemption, our hope is that it might be the night of the final one as well, bringing peace and better times to the world.
Here is where Elijah comes in, as the great harbinger of the Messiah. The notion of the cup of Elijah, the fifth cup, comes from the fifth expression of redemption. Most are familiar with the practice of drinking four cups of wine at the seder being based on these words of the Almighty to Moshe in Egypt: “Therefore say to the people of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you from their slavery, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments; And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you the Almighty.” Midrash notices four expressions of redemption here: I will bring you out, I will deliver you, I will redeem you, and I will take you.
The Sages accordingly ordained four cups to be drunk on the eve of Passover to correspond with these four expressions. But the verses continue using a fifth expression: “And I will bring you into the land.” This fifth expression leads us to the fifth cup. That reality has yet to occur in a permanent way, so there is a disagreement about whether a fifth cup should be drunk on seder night — therefore it is symbolically poured for Elijah, of whom it is said that all controversies will be settled upon his arrival at the end of days. We display our confidence in the arrival of the Messiah by pouring the cup, opening the door for him, and waiting for answers to all of our questions.
Finally, there is a connection between Elijah of seder night to other Elijah manifestations: His invitation to join us at circumcisions, where he is even provided with a special chair, and the evocation of him after each Shabbat when we sing of him at the Havdalah service. Both instances can be connected to Pesach.
Elijah bears witness to those who continue the covenant faithfully and is summoned after Shabbat as we yearn to continue in holiness, even as Shabbat’s sanctity slowly wanes. Elie Wiesel puts it this way in his Haggadah: “Elijah is the friend and companion to all who need friendship and comfort. He is the mysterious stranger who arrives at precisely the right moment; to bring hope to those in despair…He is the witness of the Jewish People.”
We who devotedly preserve and treasure tradition open the door on seder night, ready to embrace the next new level of redemptive Jewish life. Do we believe that he enters our homes? Only if invited in.